The killing frosts started in late September and our first snow, although all signs are gone now, occurred just last week. The growing season is officially over and, after a pretty exhausting summer, I now understand why so many farmers look forward to winter. We need a break from weeds, squash bugs, mosquitoes, sunburns, cutting, canning and preserving. And I need to put my feet up, dammit!
We had a full summer…full of rich dirt, friendships, veggies and lessons. Lots of lessons. This was our first growing season here at Mutiny Ranch. We not only added a garden this year, we also accumulated a dozen chickens, a mini-horse and a goat who then birthed 2 more goats. We witnessed those births (you can read about it here) which was a first for me. It was all the things you here…magical, life changing, beautiful. But we also experienced our first losses…Jeckl, our mean Silkie rooster, drowned in the water trough and our sweet, sweet hen, Lilly, was taken by a fox one night. It was a year of predators…including a mountain lion who preferred the taste of dog and a cinnamon bear who ate all of our apples.
I also lost some crops. The saying around here is to wait until all the snow is off the Ute before planting outside. The Ute is the peak we can see (very clearly) from our place. I planted 5 days too early and lost pretty much everything. Three days after planting my precious seedlings we had our last frost…accompanied by several inches of snow. I hadn’t waited for all the snow to melt off the Ute and, truthfully, I couldn’t believe (or maybe didn’t want to believe) that we had to wait till the last weekend in May to start planting. Well, I believe it now. I replanted the entire garden, direct sowing some seeds, which ended up putting them behind in growing. When your average first frost is in early September you need to give your seeds a head start.
A fantastic opportunity arose this past summer. I was able to intern (on a part-time basis) at a neighbor’s farm just a mile from our place. Fury’s Funny Farm is a dream farm steeped in traditional and natural growing methods which utilizes more of a closed-loop system (which I seek to duplicate). A closed-loop system is one which produces everything on-site to keep the farm going. The goal is to think of the farm as a living organism. Soil is created and nourished through compost, cover crops and manure. Crops planted in that soil feed the family as well as the animals and everything continues in a cycle. It moves beyond organic, which has it’s own issues…especially commercially grown organics, and enters the holistic realm. Outgoing expenses can be reduced as well as the amount of waste/trash needing to be hauled off.
Lessons on the closed-loop system:
Use your livestock to till and fertilize. Although we won’t be raising meat animals anytime soon (if ever) I learned to appreciate why and how a small scale farmer would. The use of the pig tractor (similar to our movable chicken tractor) is a way to provide continuous fresh pasture to the pigs while they fertilize, till and strip a garden plot bare of vegetation in preparation for planting. As soon as one section is stripped down the entire pig pen can be moved to a new location. The pigs are happy, the soil is happy and the farmer saves money on feed compared to dry lot/non-grazing options where hay must be brought in to feed to the pigs. Grass fed and pastured meats are not only tastier (I’ve been told) but they are also healthier. Plus, the pigs often have a higher quality of life…one I got to experience first hand.
Free range turkeys (or guinea hens) can help end a grasshopper plague. All the talk at the Farmer’s Market centered around that late snow storm in May and grasshoppers. Yep, it was a bad, bad year for grasshoppers. I admit I was kinda glad to hear everyone had them since, being new to all this, I originally thought I had done something wrong to have all these grasshoppers on my property. But they were everywhere. The Funny Farm acquired nine or so young Red Bourbon turkeys and, rather than put them in a coop, set them loose in the gardens. Soon, there weren’t many grasshoppers to be found but the turkeys flourished. Their droppings added nutrients to the soil. Closed-loop. No pesticides…not even organic ones. Side note: while chickens also love grasshoppers and can help manage pests effectively, they also love to eat your garden plants and seedlings. My chickens are not allowed in the garden until after the last harvest. They have free range to the other 3+ acres of bugs though.
Milk never goes to waste. I milked a cow for the first time. It’s not as hard as it seems but it is tricky. If the cow goes to the bathroom while you’re milking or steps in your bucket you’re done for…both happened to me. The milk has to be dumped. But guess who doesn’t mind that “contaminated milk”? The chickens and pigs. There’s no waste. As a matter of fact, the chickens even like to sift through cow and horse poop looking for undigested seeds and grains (and maybe fly larvae that’s had time to hatch). The chickens, in their efforts to sift through all that poo, do a phenomenal job of breaking down it down for better composting. Not only are these hens laying eggs for us, they’re also working all day turning our compost piles!
If you’re not practicing companion planting you (and your plants) are missing out. I found out I’m a bit lazy when it comes to staking plants. So I found it ingenious that if you plant sunflowers (or corn) with your peas you don’t have to build a trellis for them, they grow right up the stalks! If you plant sunflowers with your cucumbers they won’t be as bitter. If you plant comfrey all over the place you’ll have a natural fertilizer (you can simply cut the leaves and place them between you veggie plants or put them in water to make a compost tea). Marigolds attract pollinators and predator (good) bugs. You can find many benefits of companion planting that will not only help suppress weeds, insect infestation and resolve pollination issues but can also help enhance flavors of you crops.
Compost everything and build your soil. One of the most important things you can do as a citizen of the planet is make soil. As consumers, there’s no real way we can stop depleting the Earth of it’s life force but we can try to contribute something back. Soil is potentially the most important organism on Earth and I encourage everyone to view the documentary Dirt! (which you can view here). Plus, you get the benefits of healthier soil, less waste in your garbage can (we’ve been able to eliminate the need for plastic garbage liners because nothing “wet” goes in the garbage), less waste in the landfill that might not be able to decompose properly, more available nutrients for your plants, better water conservation (compost holds water better), a home for the all important organisms that spin the web of life in soil and the joy of creating something spectacular…DIRT!
Closed-loop systems encourage creativity. When my friend (and local straw supplier) ran out of the straw we use for bedding this fall I decided to put some of our fallen leaves to good use. I filled the chicken coop with the golden yellow cottonwood leaves and called it good. After all, the chickens love to make little nests in the pasture out of those same leaves. We also gathered fallen leaves from the driveway (where the western wind blows them all eventually) and filled up our garden with a thick layer of mulch. These leaves will provide housing for little critters and bugs and will eventually breakdown into compost.
These are but a few examples of closing-the-loop. As we get research more and get our hands dirty we’ll be looking into other ways to tighten that loop. We installed our first rain barrel this summer and have another to add so we can capture more water and keep it working for us before it is released to the water table. Our wood fired hot tub has helped us get rid of scrap lumber too small to save and we acquired all the parts and pieces to install a rocket mass heater. We’re still not sure where it will go (it will likely void our home owner’s insurance so we’re looking into the possibility of using it to heat a small green house)…one thing’s for sure, we have plenty of sticks to feed the thing.
Friends of ours, Kathy and Grant of Provision Project, utilize a green house on the south side of their off-grid home to heat it in the winter and rain water collection barrels to insulate it in the summer. They also have a great non-electric set up for drying their abundant harvests. A Fury’s Funny Farm this summer I helped build a cord wood wall with scrap firewood and bottles laying around the farm. The cob was made with clay right from the farm.
As this journey continues I’ll be sure to post about the things we are incorporating into our farm…successes and failures. So stay tuned!